Afflictive Emotions and Antidotes by Andrew Smith
When we think about what all human beings ultimately want, it is to be happy and free from suffering. So often we see external circumstance as a means of achieving or standing in the way of our happiness. For example, “If I had a better job, a more supportive family, better health, a less traumatic history, or less physical pain, I could be happier.”
Buddhism teaches that the fundamental cause of all of our suffering is the misperceived self and misunderstanding of the way that things truly are. When we see the self as independently existing and solid, we see everything separate from ourselves as something or someone to be on some level approached, avoided, or ignored. It’s almost like we become machines that exist to continue to bring temporary sense pleasures and avoid sense pains to the system. These are the stuff of the eight worldly dharmas, briefly summarized as pleasure vs. pain, fame vs. insignficance, praise vs. blame, and gain vs. loss. It’s an endless revolving cycle of hope and disillusionment as our pleasure never lasts and we keep coming across pain. Lasting happiness is impossible under these circumstances.
The true solution lies within, not from without. This is why we meditate and study dharma and generate relative and absolute bodhicitta, the spirit of awakening. And yet along the path we continue to suffer. Our unenlightened minds are deluded and we suffer. So what do we do? When we are under the throes of afflictive emotion it can become a hindrance to our motivation and action on our bodhisattva path. It may raise doubts about our path and that maybe there are easier temporary solutions than this difficult, potentially multiple-lives-long path to enlightenment. We are much more likely to act out our afflictive emotions, thereby generating negative karmic seeds that further disturb our deluded minds.
Buddhism fortunately provides some temporary antidotes to assist us in managing these afflictive emotions along the path to the ultimate antidote, which is the wisdom realizing emptiness.
My sources for this post include a number of Darshan sessions with Lama Yeshe Jinpa, commentary by His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, The Bodhicaryavatara by Shantideva, Buddhist Psychology by Geshe Tashi Tsering, and some of the LoJong slogans, with a little Rigpa Wiki thrown in for defintion of terms.
Afflictive emotion is translated as “klesha” in both Pali and Sanskrit languages. A simple definition of kleshas according to Lama Jinpa is “emotions that cause deep conflict, both internally and externally.” He emphasizes “externally,” because so much of our personal and interpersonal conflict is the result of afflictive emotion.
In Mahayana, the kleshas are also known as the poisons, as in the Three Poisons and the Five Poisons. The three poisons are “attachment, aversion, and ignorance.” These three poisons are considered to be the root of the other kleshas. The other two kleshas are pride and envy.
How do these kleshas get generated? The fundamental root problem is a belief in an independent self “here” and an independent world “there.” We feel as if we are self-contained or that we own our experience. We think the chair exists from its own side, and that we exist from our own side. We believe we’re an atman: that there’s an entity that corresponds to the pronoun “I” and “you.” As long as we ignorantly cling to this misperception of an independently existing self, other people and other phenomena are objects to either please us or stand in our way of our pleasure. Thus arises attachment (“come here, you sexy thing”), aversion (“not you, you repulse me”), pride (“I am better than you”) and envy (“I can’t stand that you are getting pleasure and not me.”) Another way of thinking about the three poisons is that attachment refers to clinging to things that support our sense of permanence, aversion to pushing things away that harm our sense of permanence, and ignorance to that very sense of permanence. Ignorance is thus is the main cause of the other two root poisons.
Many people in the West, myself included, have attempted to provide relative antidotes out of conceptualizing faulty thoughts and negative emotions. For example Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy–which teaches that our faulty cognitions cause negative emotions and self-harming behaviors– is a popular form of therapy. We tend to stay focused our problematic thoughts that cause us suffering. Mahayana scriptures, however, refer more to consciousnesses and structures than thoughts. For example the eye consciousness has to come together in order for us to see things.
Consciousnesses are tainted because of the kleshas. They’re like a set of glasses that we see through. We see through our anger glasses, or our jealousy glasses, or our victim glasses. We’re always filtering reality. The kleshas might be seen more as personality disorders than emotions. They are so pervasive that they’ve become a hell realm in our lives. They’re always there until we wake up from our delusional dream. Our surface emotions come and go, but the kleshas are always there until we wake up. The kleshas are the structures of samsara.
Lama Jinpa says that people are primordially angry, based on the misperceived self. “The phenomenal world is just so irritating all the time! We’re just generating these energies all the time, these highly charged energies of bewilderment, hostility, grasping, and pride,” he said. “Occasionally we’re noticing it. We’re feeling better so we can begin to understand what’s real. Again the point of Buddhism is to see things as they are. The way out of suffering is letting go of delusion, holding onto reality. This is the Third Noble Truth, the truth of cessation of suffering.” This is why meditation is so important, to calm the mind in order to see things as they are, to see our stuck places for what they are, to begin to truly see and understand the dharma, not just from an intellectual place. In a way one can view all of the dharma as an antidote, and all the different elements of the three jewels as antidote.
In Mahayana we are emphasizing the two truths, absolute truth and relative truth. The wisdom realizing emptiness is the ultimate antidote, but we still need relative antidotes to calm the mind and help us when we’re “losing it.” One of the most powerful antidotes we can generate is to emphasize the brahma-viharas, the four sublime states. These are:
- Sympathetic Joy
When we think back to the definition of kleshas–emotions that cause internal and external conflict–we can see how these four brahma-viharas can act as powerful antidotes to our worst tendencies. We can see how these four relate to how we relate to others. It is the essence of bodhicitta. They both generate compassion and in our meditative absorption they help to lessen our hold on the separate “I and other.” They are to be engaged both on a practical and meditative level. When we meditate on these brahma-viharas we absorb them into our hearts so that they are not easily broken by external circumstances, and we expand their range to ultimately be boundless, encompassing all sentient beings.
The brahma-viharas are also known as the Four Immeasurables, and they comprise a powerful prayer:
May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness (love)
May all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering (compassion)
May all beings be inseparable from the joyful happiness that is free from suffering (sympathetic joy)
May all beings abide in equanimity, free from holding some close and others distant (equanimity)
When working with antidotes there is both a proactive and an after-the fact aspect to them. Both are crucial. The proactive side is to create a strong intentionality with the brahma-viharas, especially in our meditative practices. Lama Jinpa has discussed with us that when we create a strong intentionality to benefit others it creates the Golden Thread that holds us when we’re starting to unravel. When we create our positive intention to benefit others it creates the karmic seeds that’ll ripen at the right time. We’re generating punya (also known as merit) with our meditation and our beneficial actions. This merit creates positive resource states that we can draw on, and it gives us resilience when external circumstances get tough. If you have been cultivating a meditative practice you may want to reflect for a moment to see if you notice how you may be more resilient to your afflictive emotions that before you started this practice.
Proactively we can look at the effect of kleshas on others and ourselves. When we see the negative action of others or ourselves what we are seeing is the manifestation of afflictive emotions. We can see this in subtle negative actions, such as being gossiped about at work, or more severe actions, such as child abuse or other acts of severe harm to others. Generating bodhicitta is very practical. Lama Jinpa says “If you don’t have afflictive emotions you’re not ruining your family and your community.” When a person has afflictive emotions they are typically strong enough that they are going to be acted out on oneself and/or others. Lama-la says “if you really want to help other people, work on becoming happy yourself.”
As long as you’re delusional about the misperceived self, you’re going to generate emotions that cause conflict. Most of dharma is talking about people’s emotional conflicts. People’s sense of self may begin to change when they settle down the emotions.
Perhaps primary to the antidotes to kleshas is generating the desire to let go of them and their causes and conditions. This may sound easy, but it’s actually so very hard so much of the time. We can get kind of addicted to our afflictive emotions and the energy they generate. We want to have our addictions without their negative consequences. We want to be happier, but we may be unwilling to do the work that it will take to reduce our afflictive emotions. This reminds me of when I first started training to be a therapist and I read a book ironically titled “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him,” in which the author Dr. Sheldon Kopp wrote that people come to therapy and in essence say to the therapist “fix my world to make me happier, just don’t ask me to do anything differently.”
Generating the desire to let go of the afflictive emotion is the crucial starting point to letting go. There is a story in which a person holding a hot coal shows the Buddha and he says “Just drop the coal,” and the person says “Give me teachings to make it cool first.”
There is a great Simpsons episode moment where Homer in his attempt to get a free soda by reaching up through the bottom slot gets his hand stuck and has to call for help. The emergency worker ends up asking him “Homer, are you just holding on to the can?” To which Homer replies “Your point being?” You can watch part of the segment here if you wish:
We are like Homer, we don’t want to let go of the can even when it keeps us stuck.
When the great Nyingma master Jigme Lingpa was asked about miracles in Buddhism he said “I am not really impressed by someone who can turn the floor into the ceiling or fire into water. A real miracle is someone who can liberate just one negative emotion.”
Let’s look at one of the most powerful afflictive emotions: anger. Anger is so powerful because it has an intoxicating quality. It wants to ”hang out,” and it generates thoughts that feed it. It becomes a nice little enclosed feedback loop. For me it is the emotion that is the “stickiest,” the one that tends to hang around the longest. I think this is because of at least two reasons: one, the thoughts that give it fuel tend to be more amplified and energized, and two, it doesn’t have the same amount of desire to get rid of it. I can work up a nice level of justification for why I was wronged and how it’s the other person’s fault. Self-cherishing is an addiction that we all have, and anger is one of the main drugs that feed this addiction.
How do we get rid of anger? How do we “drop the coal?” The first step is to generate a mind that wishes to be free of the anger. This is begun by contemplating the defects and consequences of an angry mind. When you think about the negative consequences of anger, what comes to mind?
- Negative health effects: Increased blood pressure, muscle tension, worse sleep
- Negative mental effects: decreased ability to be calm and content or happy
- Negative social effects: isolating one from others and being truly present with them.
- Negative karmic effects, particularly if we act in anger toward someone else. A karmic act cycle is intention, action, and satisfaction.
One of the key antidotes to anger, or any afflictive emotion, is to shift the focus from the external object that appears to be causing the emotion onto the internal problem. Rather that destroying the object of anger, our “enemy,” we target and finally eliminate the mind of anger. If the problem is in our minds, then we have the power to change it. We don’t need someone else to change or an external event to change a problem that exists within our own mind.
The mind of anger becomes a powerful delusional mind, because it reifies that sense of self and other. We stay in this “self and other”-fixated mind, fueling it with our outrage. If we were to target the mind of anger, not feeding it but simply exploring it, we might find it begins to loosen and lessen.
You can bring this to your meditation: think about someone who has brought you harm and to whom you have anger. Notice the feeling of anger, explore it from all sides as if it were a solid object, notice the sense of self that is relating to it and holding on to it, and perhaps feeding it with thoughts. What happens to the anger when it is explored and examined in this way? Does it stay so solid or does it begin to change? How does the self that is relating to it begin to change?
We can follow this antidote by going back to the brahma-viharas and developing love, compassion, and equanimity. When we see that the kleshas are causing the other person to act out we can generate compassion for that person and all sentient beings under the throes of the kleshas, including ourselves.
The opposite of anger is love, and love is the main antidote to anger. When you want feel love toward others you first have to acknowledge that they are suffering and to generate the wish that they be free of suffering. Remember, a bodhisattva generates the wish to benefit all sentient beings, not just the ones who please us.
In the Lojong slogans the seventh one says “sending and taking should be practiced alternately.” This is the essence of Tong-len, the practice of giving and receiving. In Tong-len you are taking in the other person’s suffering and negative qualities and giving your happiness and positive qualities to them. This can be hard to do if you don’t generate loving-kindness first. Loving-kindness starts with yourself: “May I be happy.” When you are seeing yourself as a victim, as worthy of the scorn of others or unfairly criticized, it is generating minds of hatred, either toward oneself or others. So we start with generating a mind of love. Remember in Buddhism love is wishing ourselves and others to be happy. So “May I be happy.” Then “May others be happy.” Sometimes people like to soften up the loving kindness for one’s enemies, by starting with either oneself or those to whom we have unconditional love, then to those whom we love with conditions, then to neutral people, then to mildly annoying people, then to our enemies, then to all sentient beings.
From Loving-Kindness we can utilize Tong-len sending and receiving, where we take in their pain and negative qualities and send out love and compassion. Again, love is wishing others to be happy, compassion is wishing others to be free of suffering.
Think about a person whom you really dislike. Tong Len, take the other person’s suffering and negative qualities, then give your happiness and positive qualities to the other person. Kanshur Rinpoche advised to think of their negative qualities as a black light that comes into your left nostril, then exhale white light from your right nostril that goes to that person. It may be difficult at first, but then over time it may get easier to start to let go of your anger toward the other person.
Another way we might think about compassion is that it is unconditional love. Unconditional love is defined as giving love with no expectation in return. The key point of mind training is not to expect anything in return. Expecting something in return is the self-cherishing attitude. Ironically though, when we generate compassion, we do get something in return: we get happiness.
So this is all well and good, but when we’re in the throes of afflictive emotion all of this tends to be forgotten and we are subsumed by the mind of anger. What to do “in the moment?”
The psychologist John Gottman is noted for his “Love Lab” at University of Washington, an apartment where couples stay for a few days and have their interactions monitored. Think of the TV show “Big Brother” here. What he and his team found consistently is that if either member of the couple’s pulse rate was over 100 then productive conversation couldn’t happen. So perhaps we should take this to indicate the importance of waiting some time before responding to someone based on our anger. When your volume knob is at a 9 or 10 on your stereo, how does the sound come out? That’s like us. We’re going to blow our speakers, and the person’s not going to hear what we have to say. Ideally we step back from the situation for a time before responding.
If we make the anger our problem and not the other person’s fault, then we can take the time to examine it before we create a negative karmic action. There’s a quote by Shantideva in a guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life that says
Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But wearing leather just on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.
From Geshe Tashi Tsering: “What Shantideva is conveying is how we live our lives trying to control our external circumstances, to manipulate them in order to bring about our own personal happiness, which is impossible. According to Shantideva, the best we can do protect our own happiness is to change our minds so that we no longer perceive a set of circumstances as a problem. We can’t make everyone and everything conform to our wishes. But through mind training external circumstances and people don’t sway us so much. Then we can see them more realistically and compassion naturally arises as we are able to see the suffering that fuels their actions.”
So two of the main antidotes to anger are compassion and patience, but that doesn’t mean that we become passive. Lama-la says this is a classic misconception that people have about Buddhism: “turn the other cheek.” Passivity doesn’t always work if you have a bodhisattva responsibility to benefit others. This might be a manifestation of “engaged Buddhism.” The klesha antidote is in generating a less afflictive mind, which then translates into less harmful action. A compassionate mind can stop someone from their misdeeds and doesn’t sew negative karmic seeds in the process.
An important distinction between patience and corrective action is to consider what is the harm of the negative action. If it is to our self-cherishing and our pride, then we accept the teaching of the other and offer the victory to them.
However, if it is a direct threat to our welfare and/or the welfare of others, we are compelled to take corrective action, because a bodhisattva cares about the welfare of all sentient beings.
Thanks for taking the time to read this, I hope it was helpful to you. In future posts I will condense other talks planned on different aspects of the kleshas and antidotes. There is no shortage of material on this topic to contemplate and discuss!